Starburst caught up with Jonathan Morris to discuss his recent work and upcoming work for Big Finish and how he has developed as a writer since his first novel Festival of Death.
Starburst: First of all congratulations on Age Of Revolution (the first story from the fifth Jago & Litefoot boxset); I thought it balanced setting up the characters in the 1960s with some humour really well. Not only was there an almost obligatory Python scene but I really enjoyed how you sneaked in the reference to the Kinks.
Jonathan Morris: The Python scene just arose naturally out of writing that conversation, it was turning into that sketch as I went along so I had the choice of either going for it, or rewriting that scene to avoid any similarity. I’m not particularly proud of that bit, to be honest, it’s somebody else’s joke and is a bit ‘meta’, a bit ‘in’, a bit did-you-see-what-I-did-there. The Kinks reference came about because I was given a brief to write a story in the late ‘60s and was casting about for ideas – or even before ideas, just a theme. One of the things that struck me was that in that era you had a revival of Victoriana, if you look at the covers for Sergeant Pepper or Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake by The Small Faces you can see that Victorian design ethic, which also came across in the music and fashion of the time, with shops like Granny Takes A Trip where dedicated followers of fashion in top-hats would spend their days perusing red uniforms. The Kink’s Village Green Preservation Society album epitomized that, with its title track being a manifesto about a golden age of the past. But then I threw all sorts of other things into the mix, like the incident where the David Frost show was invaded by hippies, Simon Dee’s sudden fall from fame, the rise of the Nationwide Festival of Light, and of course the brief was to write something Adam Adamant-y.
Would it be fair to say that your work is using humour more than some of your earlier pieces? I’m thinking of the comedy scrap-merchants from last year’s Shadow Heart as an example.
I’m not sure I’d agree. Away from Doctor Who I’ve mainly written comedy stuff, and some of my earlier Doctor Who stories were very comedic – Flip Flop, Max Warp, The Beautiful People. I try to mix up the tone, so that if I’ve just written something terribly serious, I’ll push in the other direction. With The Shadow Heart I knew that the first two stories would be quite serious, so I thought I’d make the ‘world’ of that trilogy more expansive, outrageous and colourful, to ring the changes, avoid it getting repetitive and add a bit of light. And if you’re telling quite a sprawling, involved story, you need memorable, larger-than-life characters so it’s always clear what’s going on and who everyone is. I do worry occasionally that I might be getting typecast as the ‘funny one’ guy, so I make a conscious effort to stretch myself doing more grown-up, serious and emotional stories. ‘The Shadow Heart’ was intended to be in the mad, pulpy style of early 2000 AD comic strips and the 1980 Flash Gordon film.
A very good point, particularly with regards Max Warp one of my favourite episodes from the second series of Eighth Doctor Adventures. One thing I wanted to check about Protect and Survive – was the son named Raymond as a reference to When the Wind Blows?
Yes. I didn’t exactly hide the influence of that book on the story and so it seemed right to acknowledge it somehow. Although there’s a lot of other stuff in there too, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and Waiting For Godot but I suspect that was subtler. But I wouldn’t want to give the impression these stories are just a load of other people’s stories bolted together. They are starting points, inspirations. That story was quite hard work to write for several reasons. I’d deliberately made the plot very linear and slow-paced in order to ‘leave room’ for character development, suspense and atmosphere, which is outside my normal ‘comfort zone’. I also found writing all the nuclear war stuff terrifying and depressing. I suppose it was therapeutic in a way, to dramatise my nightmares, and I think it’s the case that you have to feel the emotions when you’re writing something if you want the audience to feel those emotions; you have to cry at the sad bits, laugh at the jokes, and leap out of your chair with fright when your wife walks in during a scary bit.
While we’re talking references in your work, Voyage to Venus managed to cross-check a lot of bits of canon and was really enjoyable. In the extras I remember someone mentioned the CS Lewis story of the same name (it was probably Colin) – was that story an influence at all?
Not a great influence, I have to say. I did read CS Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet as ‘research’ but didn’t think much of it, and the fact that Voyage to Venus has the same title as the alternative title for Perelandra was just a coincidence. I’d been trying to think up an alliterative, Edgar Rice Burroughs-type title, came up with that, typed it into google and discovered the link, so decided to put it down to fate. The real influences with that story were Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, HG Wells and particularly Olaf Stapledon, as well as capturing the ‘pulpy’ style of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Though I also managed to get some real science in there as well; it seems like a wonderfully Jules Verne-y type idea to have a city held up by zeppelins but if mankind was to colonise Venus, that’s how we’d probably do it. The same applies to the idea of humanity re-engineering themselves to survive in a new environment which meant I could do a gag about sexual dimorphism. The idea of making Venus all-female stemmed partly from the fact that a lot of the ‘pulpy’ fictions about Venus had it ruled by women, it’s a very well-worn trope, and I wanted to subvert the cliché, or at least have some fun with it. I was also very aware that with three male leads, I should balance things out in terms of gender and age.
If we move on to some upcoming titles, this month (April 2013) sees the release of Babblesphere, a Fourth Doctor story performed by Lalla Ward. I heard in a talk at Big Finish Day that you were specifically selected for this on the strength of your first novel Festival of Death (2000). You must be pleased at both that testimony and the fact that the book has just been re-released to mark the 50th anniversary.
It is pleasing, because you can imagine how indignant I would’ve been if none of my books had been chosen! To be honest, I think Touched by an Angel is much, much better, because I like to think that I’ve got better as a writer in the last ten years. Festival of Death is so long ago now it feels like it was written by a different person, somebody younger but not quite as handsome as me, so I feel kind of fraudulent when people say nice things about it, as though I’m taking credit for somebody else’s work. That must be how actors feel when they are complimented about a part they played decades ago. But I re-read Festival of Death in preparation for writing the all-new introduction, and although I cringed a lot during the opening chapters I think it starts getting good around Chapter Five, and as soon as Hoopy appeared I started laughing at my own jokes very loudly indeed.
Regarding being asked to do Babblesphere, well it was lovely; it’s always lovely to be asked. I did get a bit grumpy being commissioned on the basis of something I wrote over ten years ago – I was like ‘what about everything I’ve done since?’ – and I was very wary of revisiting that era of Doctor Who, as I’d already done a Douglas Adams-ish audio with Lalla Ward and didn’t want to repeat myself. So the challenge with Babblesphere was to make it different the second time around without losing all the things I’d got right the first time.
I also heard that Lalla Ward thought the script for Babblesphere was one of the very best she’s ever read and comparable to a Douglas Adams piece. Can you tell us anything about how you approached the story?
The story for Babblesphere was one I had kicking around for years. I came up with it about six months after Twitter started – just imagine how topical it would’ve been then. I pitched it to Big Finish as a Tom Baker story but they weren’t keen, then I pitched it to Doctor Who Magazine as a comic strip but that never happened either. So when John Ainsworth asked me if I had any ideas I pulled this one out of my bottom drawer. No, not my bottom drawer, my top drawer of all my best ideas.
Initially my instinct had been to write the story very much as it would’ve appeared on television, had it been made in 1979, with lots of grey corridors and people wearing grey pyjamas. John, to his credit, really pushed me to be more imaginative in terms of the story’s setting, and to make the rebels more interesting. The end product is a much better and more vivid story as a result, I get grumpy when I’m pushed but sometimes I need it.
Of course, it’s a satire about Twitter and Facebook (remember when Facebook started, people would update their statuses twenty times a day). It’s not intended to be subtle. It’s intended to be as subtle as The Sun Makers i.e. sledgehammer level.
The rest of the year sees another Fourth Doctor story Phantoms of the Deep, the fifth Doctor in Prisoner of Fate and Mastermind a sequel to your previous Tales from The Vault. Can you give any brief highlights of any of these?
Well, the highlight of Phantoms of the Deep for me was during the recording, the first scene with Tom Baker and John Leeson, where I heard the Doctor and K-9 saying lines I had written for them. I felt a real tingle of... well, I don’t know what it was of. That feeling you get when a huge part of your childhood becomes a huge part of your adult life but with you as a part of it. It was magical, they both sounded exactly as they did back then. And the rest of the production was very strong, the cast were all great, I think the script I wrote was strong and tight – and a huge contrast to ‘The Auntie Matter’ – so I’m very excited to hear the finished product. Hopefully it’ll be very scary. It also allowed me to combine Doctor Who with another of my obsessions, deep sea creatures. Real-life monsters!
Prisoners of Fate is a very character-based, emotional story, picking up various ongoing threads going all the way back to Cobwebs. It features Nyssa’s son, who has spent the last twenty-five years of his life thinking his mother died on Helheim, so when she turns up alive, well, and looking much younger it’s a bit of a surprise. Beyond that, though, I can’t really say anything. It’s all about predeterminism vs free will.
Mastermind is an experiment. It brings back the UNIT characters from Tales from The Vault and is a companion chronicle where the story is told by the villain. It’s a Doctor-lite tale, it’s more about what The Master gets up to when the Doctor isn’t around, and picks up events after the TV Movie left off, so it’s uncharted territory. I was at the recording and Geoffrey Beevers’ performance was absolutely astonishing, utterly chilling and moving, so I’d say buy it for that!
This year has also seen the release of Vienna starring Chase Masterson, a character you introduced to us in Shadow Heart. I think it is fair to say fans were surprised at how quickly Big Finish announced this, even before Shadow Heart was released. I think it also fair to say that like me most fans have been very pleased at the result and are looking forward to next year’s boxset which I believe is due in February. Can you describe how you first conceived of Vienna and what it was like when others spotted the potential?
Well, Vienna was conceived as part of a pantheon of larger-than-life characters for The Shadow Heart. The idea of a glamorous female assassin seemed corny, until I tried to think where it had been done before and realised I couldn’t think where it had been done before. She’s a kind of comic-book character, very 2000 AD, and even before I wrote a line of dialogue I had a very strong visual idea of the character, which I took as a good sign.
I suspect David Richardson may have already been thinking ‘returning character’ when he cast Chase in the role and certainly that light bulb was hovering above his head and flashing during the recording. As I’d only created the character as a one-off, I was surprised when it was suggested that she have her own series, particularly because it’s hard to build a format around a villainous character. So for the series I’ve had her amorally acting for the forces of good. What I wanted to do with The Memory Box was to create an audio action movie, the equivalent of Total Recall or Minority Report, very much in the mind-bending Philip K Dick tradition, with as many twists and turns as possible. Hard sci-fi, very technological, but keeping the colour and imaginative spirit of 2000 AD and Flash Gordon, with lots of weird and wonderful planets and aliens. Really to push it as far as it can go in terms of ideas.
I certainly think you achieved that with The Memory Box and I look forward to the boxset when it comes out next year. Finally, you’ve written for a whole range of characters now, are there any left that you’d like to write for and why?
I assume this question is in terms of Doctor Who? I’ve not really done a proper First Doctor story, so I’d love to do that, because I find that era so magical and I’ve got a few ideas ready to go in my top drawer. I’d love to write for Polly. I’d love to do a Cybermen story, I’ve got a few ideas ready to go there. I have an idea for an historical adventure involving a famous king. I’d love to write a story with Adric in, I had his picture on my bedroom wall. And I’d love to write a prequel to The Keys of Marinus, where we find out how Yartek got together with the Voord.